Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Giving up the ghost

Local birders will be very familar with the events of September last year that changed birding in Surrey and at Beddington but hardly anything has been said about it on the internet, apart from here. I've felt little desire to say anything about it until now, partly because it has only recently become an event of the not-so-recent past and partly because my thoughts about the event have been building and developing over the months, but now I feel a need to transfer these thoughts into writing.

On Tuesday 25th September 2012 I was sitting in the college library when a tweet and text were delivered to my phone from Johnny Allan calmly noting that a 'Long-tailed Skua flew SW'. Little did I know, this was the end of an era. At first I assumed that he'd seen the bird and would be posting pictures and waxing lyrical about it on his blog later in the day but as the hours passed and I had a few conversations with other local birders and thought about the messages some more, I wondered whether he'd missed the bird. It was odd for him to tweet such a bird before texting it out and when he had previously struck gold the excitement in his grip-off text was undeniable. It soon resolved that he had missed the bird and he had gone home in a huff; this was perfectly predictable behaviour for 'Badgeman' - he did have a short temper. If a bus was in front of the car when I on a trip with him or if a gull that he was photographing walked out of view you'd soon hear the A-Z of curse words recited several times over. And he did not take dipping or missing birds well, that was for sure.

The next day, he wasn't back. Nor the next, nor the next. And nor was his website and blog that he took down the evening of that fateful day. 'Surely he'll be back in a week's time?' I thought, but still no sign of him and he wasn't replying to messages or answering people's calls. As more time passed I thought he'd be back in a month or two, maybe after his trip to Portland that he was telling me about. Perhaps in the New Year. He just needed a break and he'd return to normal activity? But he still hasn't returned. I learned that he had left his post on the Surrey Bird Club records committee and I thought this was very telling. His vanishing has been the subject of an interesting mix of amusement and concern in the birding community.

There have been no reported sightings of him apart from at Portland in late October, a month after the skua - a sighting which I predicted as he had told me of his plans for a short break over there. This was comforting in that it showed he was still birding, although he may have given up his Beddington and Surrey hardcore listing forever. This I sympathised with. He'd put many years of constant effort into Beddington and Surrey birding and the law of diminishing returns meant that, for someone primarily driven by ticks, he was well and truly burnt out. He was lucky to get one or two additions to these local lists each year and missing any tick, let alone a second-for-Surrey, was bound to hurt badly. As rewarding as local birding can be, I suspect Johnny might have, at some level, felt trapped by it; because of his dedication to birding at Beddington and listing in Surrey he felt insecure enjoying more varied trips further afield for fear of missing something important. Missing a second-for-Surrey shortly after a failed quest for the Magnolia Warbler and following a largely quiet and frankly average last year or two birding at Beddington (in which most of his birding colleagues apparently had at least a slightly easier time of adding new birds than he), it must have seemed a good moment to escape the psychological prison sentence that the hardened patch-watcher can perhaps be drawn into. I believe this final throw of his toys represented a frustration that had been building and congealing for some time. Maybe he needed to reflect on what he was getting out of his birding and perhaps consider thinking about it or approaching it in a different way, as touched on here.

I have to admit that the disappearance of Johnny Allan has had a personal effect on me. He was very much a part of my early proper birding experiences. From the age of seven I had a keen interest in birds but it was only really from the age of ten or eleven that I began actively birding to a degree and it was at the age of twelve that I first visited Beddington Sewage Farm. I'd purused Johnny's website for months before visiting and felt in awe of the birds he'd seen both nationally and locally and the prospect of seeing birds like the ones that decorated his retro-style webpages filled my pre-teen self with great excitement and enthusiasm for the wonderful hobby that I was starting to get more heavily involved in. I eagerly visited Beddington for the first time, thrilled at seeing the legendary lakes and lagoons and the humbly historical 'green monestry' of a tin hut hide. Meeting Johnny was exciting for me and I still remember it - he seemed the epitome of a cool, die-hard, experienced and well-travelled birder who'd laid eyes on all sorts of goodies and really knew what he was doing. His khaki jacket, thick cigars and numerous pin-badges from various corners of the country added to his unique persona. Dodge laid a similar impression on me and I was brimming with enthusiasm to come back and bird with these people. I came back regularly, though timidly, only coming in when invited despite a gaping hole in the fence (it took me a while to feel like I was one of the birders there). I saw a handful of interesting birds and had fun. These were formative and happy hours spent at the sewage farm.

The following year I was still coming back but, as an impressionable kid turning into a teenager I ended up in the middle of a social clash between Johnny and another birder at the farm. I looked up to and liked both in different ways - they were both very unique individuals and I felt I gained from being with both of them in different ways. And I did, I learnt a lot from both sides and from the conflict itself. These experiences taught me a hell of a lot about how birders' minds work, how birding works and how people in general work. I went on for another year and a bit, though it doesn't seem like it was that long, juggling trying to be friends with both sides and learning more about birders, birds, birding and life on the way but after a while it became too much for me. Beddington had given me a lot but because of the tense and unsettled environment, I fled to pastures new. My first choice was Canons Farm and I haven't looked back - it's a great site with some equally great birders, I'm proud to call it my birding home. Like Beddington, Canons has developed me as a birder and taught me much into my late teens, seeing me into birding as a young adult.

I still go to Beddington now and then, I still enjoy it; the social tension over there ended long ago, quite some time before Johnny jumped ship, as it were. It's not the same place without Johnny Allan, though. Johnny gave a comforting sense of consistency to the site's slowly evolving personality and layout. For nearly six years, from my pivotal first visit to Beddington until late September last year, I knew that most times I paid the sewage farm a visit the same familar face, jacket and packet of cigars - one of the symbols of my early days birding - would be there to offer anecdotes and information that I found engaging, exciting and sometimes inspiring. When I found something, at Beddington or Canons, I'd often call Johnny instead of text him because hearing him say 'Nice one devil-birder, I'm on my way' added to the excitement and buzz of it all. Twitches with him and Franko provided an occasional window into twitching's hardcore and back into birding's arguable heyday which I'd otherwise only read in books.

The fact that he vanished from my familar schema of birding so suddenly has caused me a degree of distress and it has certainly had an effect on birding in general at Beddington and in Surrey - the two places over which he ruled supreme and was the first person a birder covering either of these areas wanted to know. I've been by no means heartbroken over it, Johnny and I were never best friends: although we saw eye-to-eye on many levels and largely got on well, we perhaps never fully clicked and Johnny had his faults (as do I and everybody). At a time our relationship was very uneasy and even verging on hostile but apart from this brief difficult period we were friends and he symbolised a lot to me. In some ways he was a birding role-model. I'm the sort of person that really doesn't like change, so this element of my personality, combined with the fact that I know that when I'm fifty I'll look back at Beddington and Johnny as some of my earliest birding memories, has made this loss to the local birding community perhaps more significant to me. I'll miss Badgeman's omnipresence on the Surrey and Beddington scenes. His swift exit should be heeded as a warning sign to birders everywhere. Thanks, Johnny, for the guidance and information you gave me, and I hope you're well. That's got a certain amount off my chest.